Saturday, August 23, 2014

Do-or-die for 5e D&D: third party publishers

Here's the summary of a long post.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.

Whether it's public relations to call it a "license," or whether something titled "license" was put in there with the operative legal documents, what WotC has done with Kobold Press and presumably again with Sasquatch, isn't what I'd call a license in terms of putting the benefits of third-party creativity into the system.

I don't fault them for that; they had to have an adventure to go out with the core books, and they no doubt had (and probably still have) internal wars over exactly the same question here on this thread -- is a real license a good idea for WotC or is it a bad one, and even if it's a good one then some poor lawyer has to write the thing with multiple people telling him/her how to word it. (I'm a lawyer, my heart bleeds for that person)

But the arrangement with Kobold is more like hiring a production company at best.
(1) Surely no one thinks Kobold wasn't given parameters for content (betcha it had to have at least one dragon, no dead kids, etc.). Granted, some content ratings, though, can definitely still be "like a license," (see Paizo's nipple restriction) but the amount of restriction and guidance is obviously quite major in this case.
(2) Surely no one thinks Wolfgang Bauer was required to invest his own money at a measurable scale relative to the project for an investor's share? That's in the nature of a license.
(3) Surely no one thinks that there wasn't a set range for the page count.

See, here's the thing. Licenses can take many forms, and have many layers of complexity, including all manner of restrictions, but AT HEART a license is something that allows a third party to be an independent business using the licensed material. Not necessarily a successful one, not necessarily one that supports a family, but one where the significant decisions, most of the risk, and most of the gain, are undertaken by the licensee. Here, WotC is undertaking all the risk, and capturing most of the upside. That's not a license agreement, it's hiring a group of excellent authors who have a company. Which, again, was a good call. I don't fault that decision for even a moment in terms of where WotC stood on its production schedule, its work load and personnel coverage, the evolving state of the rules, and the legal/marketing interface on the question of how open to be with the rules. I would have done the same thing at that point in time. Remember, it takes a LONG time to produce a book like Tyranny of Dragons, and you have to manage lots of moving pieces. WotC effectively hired Kobold to handle as many of those moving pieces as possible within the context of a flagship product. Wolfgang Bauer was a brilliant choice for it. But that's (a) not really a license in any meaningful sense of the word, and (b) not something that grants the benefits of a robust licensing system -- or the downside either, and some downside does exist.

The question of true licensing is this: WotC is trying to catch up with a well-funded, popular competitor that has a well-established brand name, in almost exactly the same competitive space. WotC has a more widely recognized brand name, but it's an older brand name with fewer loyal, die-hard customers than Paizo has. The different aspects of those brand names are important to the way the competition is going to roll out. WotC is starting from behind, but has to work slightly less hard per new customer, and slightly less hard to shift a customer from the Paizo circle in the Venn diagram to the WotC circle. On the other hand, Paizo has WotC under siege. All Paizo has to do is hold onto enough customers that WotC doesn't meet the expectations of the Magic the Gathering return on investment for long enough that WotC decides not to keep funding new books for D&D. Paizo can last much longer because of that existing base of loyal customers. WotC can generate phenomenal return on investment with the core books, but has to sustain a cash flow stream. Paizo already has, and will undoubtedly retain, enough cash flow to continue publishing Pathfinder under their existing model. D&D will, without question, grab enough fans to stay in business if those fans keep playing and buy more books. But they have to hold that ground.

That's a summary of the competitive space, and I think it's accurate. D&D probably got the one, big, expenditure authorization. Core books. After that, have production houses produce smaller books that will also sell to players (campaigns, adventurer sourcebooks. Look at the production schedule and whether full-time WotC employees are doing the writing: I rest my case).

Where do third party publishers fit in here? It all has to do with the popularity of one system or the other. D&D is fighting to survive in that competitive space long enough to gain customer loyalty for those player-targeted books (and the ability to license pinball machines, shirts, computer games, movies, happy-meal toys, etc). They have to stay in the game.

You can't. Cannot. Stay in the game against Paizo with limited funding and a single WotC-supervised line of products. Not even if you are casting a wide net on your product definition such as "Forgotten Realms," or "Greyhawk," or "Spelljammer." That's been tried. The older ones of us remember how successful D&D can be if it runs many campaigns, player-targeted books, and attempt to control outside publishing. That was late-TSR business planning, and it ran TSR out of business. It didn't kill the brand name, but that's because there was no established competitor of any size.

In this case, there's Paizo. Phenomenal customer service, fanatic customer loyalty, stable game system rules (I think WotC's D&D rules are pretty stable and spiffy, too, but I'm profiling Paizo, not comparing), well funded, and with owners that won't cancel the game over a couple of bad fiscal quarters in a row.

One of the ways Paizo got so powerful as a competitor? Third parties publishing "alternate visions" of Pathfinder. Publishing little things to spice up a non-standard game. Publishing robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventures for the 25 gaming groups that needed exactly that module on exactly that release date. All those people who might have drifted to D&D or Savage Worlds, or Swords & Wizardry, or gone back to First Edition D&D ... they stayed with Pathfinder because of the 3d party publishers. And then maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe six months later, they bought another Pathfinder book from Paizo. Or they bought another robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventure in the Paizo store, giving Paizo a percentage.

WotC benefits LESS from third party publishers than Paizo, because they don't (and won't) have a store like Paizo does, where they get cash flow direct from the third party publishers. Let me tell you, Paizo got a measurable chunk of change by selling Frog God Games' Rappan Athuk. WotC wouldn't get that cash flow stream. But having the third party publishers prevents this scenario: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. Oh, it's for Pathfinder not D&D. Oh well, drag out the Pathfinder books again, we'll play D&D again later, maybe." Because remember, D&D needs that cash flow stream now, not later. They need: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. There's a 5th edition version [not yet, fans, this is an example]. But I need a DM screen. No problem, I'll get one this afternoon over at the game store [where, additionally to the DM screen, there are other WotC products next to it on the shelf]."

There's no question that in the above example, some WotC product (say, Tyranny of Dragons) got left on the shelf, and all WotC sold was a DM screen (and maybe a related impulse buy). But the relevant comparison ISN'T less vs more, which many commenters seem to think. The relevant comparison is an existential one: it's selling NOTHING vs selling something. Selling "something" to those who would otherwise play the competing game because of third party publishers keeps the lights on at D&D headquarters.

D&D alone can muster up a nice, robust product line that will sell to people who like the common denominator. Mike Mearles has done a good job of hitting a broad common denominator. He's in there swinging. He built an awesome battleship out of what looked like a sunken wreck.

The competing product line, though, is a freaking juggernaut. Paizo is at the center like an aircraft carrier, delivering wave after wave of common denominator product. What's different is the vast armada of third party publishers meeting every need of the Pathfinder player, from alternate minis, to little status tokens, to specialized adventures, to variant character classes, to whatever imaginable whim that player might have. If they play Pathfinder. Instead of D&D.

The summary is this:

Without those 3rd party publishers, WotC has no way to capture the marginal customer. The people who simply can't live with the concept of a world without [your favorite Pathfinder 3pp product]." Single product line relying on multiple official campaigns and policing 3pp production didn't fly in 1998. And now, in 2014, Paizo is out there. Paizo is lean, mean, and popular. If D&D wants to beat the empire, it needs a plucky rebel alliance. They need to start assembling that rebel alliance, fast. And that doesn't mean hiring companies to produce company-approved material using WotC capital and Hasbro's corporate bonds. That's the TSR model circa 1998. I'm assuming that this is just because the rest of the WotC business model hasn't rolled out yet. But the clock is ticking. OGL-based material won't continue to flow from 3rd party publishers without a license to use the copyrighted terms in the rules (not necessarily the trademark, and not an SRD). Without at least that level of open license, D&D won't have the staying power, and Paizo just has to wait. The third party publishers will do all the competing that Paizo needs done.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 3

So, in my last installment of this series, I pointed out that there have been two different approaches taken for D&D in terms of creating a basic set. The first of these, the Holmes basic set, was essentially a full set of rules that only went up three levels. The second, the Moldvay Basic set, was the first half of a complete game, a game that ran parallel with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to the top possible levels. The rules of this parallel game were less complex than the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (for those who are unfamiliar with the game's first edition, it was a rather difficult game if you tried to use all the rules).

Now that Wizards of the Coast has released a new basic set for 5th Edition D&D, it's worth taking a look at the philosophy and approach of the new approach. Is WotC taking the "just for a couple of levels" approach, or the "less-complex but all-the-way-to-the-end" approach?

The answer, interestingly enough, appears to be that they are simultaneously taking both approaches. What's different here with the two past offerings isn't the contents, it's the medium. The starter kit, which comes in a box and will get sold in stores, apparently takes the Holmes approach. It's only good for a short time; you learn the essential rules and you have some pregenerated characters. You don't have the ability to level them up beyond a certain point, and you don't even have the rules to build different ones. Some people (all of them experienced gamers on the internet) labeled this as crippleware, even though it's a basic set. If the starter set is viewed in isolation, I suppose it's not as robust as the Holmes set. However, let me tell you something, the Holmes set wasn't exactly easy to learn. It wasn't until the Moldvay set that any kind of linearity of concepts really leached into the D&D rules, Basic or Advanced. The Holmes set, like OD&D, was magical. AD&D was rich and epic. Moldvay, however, came up with the first easy-to-learn version. Let's not hear the argument about "kids these days:" I got the XP rules from Holmes dead wrong, and I'd read the Hobbit at age 5, and eventually got a perfect score on the SAT verbal, and went to Harvard. The Holmes rules weren't easy to nail.

WotC has taken the discrete task of "get playing and learn through playing" to a new extreme. Here are your pre-generated characters. How to use them. Go.

At the same time, though, there's the rest of the plan, the other shoe, the parallel strategy, whatever you want to call it. With the free pdf of the Basic Rules, WotC picks up the BEMCI (Mentzer Basic) approach to Basic-ness to accompany the "even simpler than Moldvay" one.

That's enough for this installment -- in the next one I will pick up why the difference between past and present is centered on the medium rather than the content of the WotC 5th Edition Basic.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 2

So, after yesterday's post about the first Basic Set, the Holmes Blue Book, let's recap by saying that the Holmes set lacked vital rules for playing beyond a certain point. It wasn't a working but simplified version of AD&D (e.g., missing rangers, some spells from each level, some monsters, some treasure, etc). Rather, it stopped working entirely at a certain point.

The next Basic Set to come out was the 1981 Red Box, "Moldvay Basic," or "B/X." The reason for the "X" in "B/X" was to stand for the Expert Box that a gaming group could move on to once they had exhausted the resources of the Basic Set.
Now, if you've been keeping track of my focus so far, you've probably already guessed the point I'm about to make. The Holmes Basic Set graduated the players up to Advanced D&D. The Moldvay Basic Set (which went to level 3 just like the Holmes set) didn't. It graduated you to something that was effectively a parallel to Advanced D&D, because the Expert set (which I just looked up for information) went to level 14. At this point in time there were two versions of low-to-high-level D&D.

I don't have much to add about 1983 "Mentzer" Basic, also called BEMCI because it contained Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules. I never happened to play this edition (I was a proud-to-play-Advanced-snob even by the time of the Moldvay set), but the Mentzer edition isn't relevant to this particular history because it's essentially a continuation and a culmination of the trend started with the B/X sets -- the creation of a parallel D&D game.

Although there have been other D&D Basic sets, the continuum from Holmes to Mentzer set the stage for two different approaches to Basic Sets, which now that I have established, I'll get into in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 1

Dungeons & Dragons has used the concept of a "Basic" version since fairly early in the game's history. With the game first being published in 1974, the Holmes Basic set came out in 1978, four years later. Together with an expanded Monster Manual, the Basic Set ("Holmes Basic," or the "Blue Book") was an integral part of the marketing plan for the first radical step in rules revisions that TSR was to make: the new "Advanced" D&D. The Holmes Basic set gave players (and DMs) a full and robust set of rules for playing their characters up to third level but no further.Oddly, it contained several monsters far too difficult for characters of low level. For me, that was like heroin. I had to get the expanded, Advanced game so I could fight purple worms and dragons. From the standpoint of marketing, it was brilliant.

The fact that it only went to third level was absolutely fine to us at the time. It certainly meant that we wanted AD&D, but we saw AD&D almost as an expansion rather than something that would cure the "crippleware" of a Basic set that only went to third level. In other words, I don't think it was crippleware; it wouldn't be now, and it most certainly wasn't at that time in history before the internet made us expect everything for free.

Interestingly, Holmes Basic had LOTS of rules that were completely different from AD&D. Those rules have actually been duplicated and used to created an entire game based on Holmes that reached beyond third level. However, these differences were pretty much disregarded at the time, at least by everyone I knew, as the parts that made the game "Basic." For all I know, that might have been what TSR intended. It's interesting, though, because I think the internet would die of nerdrage if WotC's free (FREE!) Basic Game turned out to have such differences as the Holmes Set did to AD&D.

I don't mean to be delivering one of those "uphill in the snow and we LIKED it" tirades -- I'm trying to point out a couple of areas where the lack of instantaneous communication probably affected the relationship between a Basic Game and an Advanced Game in a big way.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Basic Game into the piranha tank of the internet age, and I'm going to take a look at some of the parameters of the game, talking about the entire theory of a Basic Game (and a couple of historical comments about TSR, although I'm very much only a dilettante of D&D's history). For the time being, here is the page with WotC's parameters for the 5th edition Basic Game.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keying the Map, or Mapping the Key

I've seen this discussed before on a message board, but I can't find the thread. The question was this: when getting ready for the game, do you (a) draw a map first and then key it, (b) draw the map and the key at the same time working as you go, or (c) write some sort of key (such as a roster of monsters and traps) before building the map to suit? This also begs another question, that of the backstory. In general, unless it's a funhouse type of dungeon, there's a backstory -- whether or not it's ever revealed to the players, some sort of idea usually unifies the encounters even in a location-based adventure.

What's the order in which you mentally organize, prioritize, and develop your adventures?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stuff Monsters Have

One way of generating interesting treasures, especially when it's a powerful monster, is to think about what's important to the monster. What kinds of things might a dragon really need? If the answer is that, hey, maybe this one needed a laxative recently ... pity the adventurer who misuses that barrel of pink potion in the lair. How do guy dragons make themselves attractive to the scaly sirens at the saurian singles bars? Is there a bucket of scale-shinola in the lair's hidden compartment? Maybe that stuff actually strengthens metal armor (or leather armor) for short periods of time.

And do dragons have pets? A pet and some pet supplies would be interesting stuff to find in the dragon's lair. Watch the characters take really, really good care of that cockatiel until they can figure out what it "does." Negotiating with a dragon that wants 40 pounds of mixed seeds?

The most recent bit I wrote this morning was about a monster that eats brains. In the treasure hoard? A long-handled gold spoon...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sometimes You have to Lower the Bar to Improve Things

Sitting here with a cup of coffee, typing away at Chapter 7 of my Cyclopean Deeps "Under Realms" mini-campaign, my thoughts drifted over to the problems I've been having with this blog. I think I just figured something out.

Really, the hardest part of keeping a running blog isn't the writing, it's thinking up the interesting topics. If you come up with something interesting but you don't really cover the ground very well, or perhaps you miss your own point, that's okay: someone else is likely to pick up the topic, handle it better, and link back to your blog. Even Homer had some places in the Iliad and the Odyssey that didn't really measure up. It's not a catastrophe.

What I've been doing, subconsciously, is rejecting the topics that are of medium interest. If I didn't have some sort of Big Idea, I didn't write at all. That's not what people read blogs for (although the occasional Big Idea increases visitor numbers, especially if it's controversial).

I need to focus on the fact that it's okay to have blog posts that are chatty rather than profound, that can even be stupid sometimes. The willingness to stumble out with a half-baked idea isn't an insult to the readers (provided that it's only occasional) -- it's a sign that you respect the readers enough to post something where they have to connect a few of their own dots. Every so often, a half-baked idea can lead to several awesome ones.